Fierce compassion

Sep 13, 2019

Buddhist psychology is pretty straight forward in its depiction and analysis of our various states of mind: there are only three categories: positive, negative and neutral. These are technical terms, not moralistic.

When we’re on the receiving end of love, compassion, and generosity, let’s say, or, indeed, when they are prevalent in our own mind at any given moment, we know immediately that they’re useful, beneficial states of mind and that they’re the source of our well-being, our happiness.

Equally, we know immediately that anger, fear, depression, low-self esteem and the rest of the unhappy states of mind are just awful: the source of our misery, for sure.

The Buddhist analysis of these states of mind is subtle and nuanced, but also precise. According to this model of the mind, anger, attachment, jealousy and the other fear-based voices of ego are the source of our pain and the basis of why we make a mess of our relationships. But, amazingly, they can be removed: that’s Buddha’s key finding: it’s what’s implied by the achievement of nirvana.

Can we imagine our life without them? To even consider it seems absurd in our culture, whose psychological models assume they’re utterly normal.

But can something like anger be useful? Can compassion, which we usually associate as something gentle, be fierce?

The more advanced levels of Buddhist psychology, those practised by the highly evolved bodhisattvas, would say absolutely yes.

The key to understanding how it’s possible to be fiercely compassionate or kindly angry is to be super clear about the underlying motive behind our actions. And that needs much training. There needs to be a sound basis of genuine altruism.

In the initial stages of Buddhist practice, there’s no wiggle room: Buddha exhorts us to back off and not harm any being and learn to subdue our out-of-control emotions, for our own sake and the sake of others.

But when we’ve harnessed this energy with disciplined practice and have learned to genuinely put the welfare of others in the forefront of our minds – advanced levels of practice indeed! – it’s perfectly possible to show anger solely for the sake of another: in other words, fierce compassion.

Normally our anger is uncontrolled and we deeply regret it later. Alternatively, when it’s necessary to stand up for something and speak the truth, we so often don’t because we’re afraid of what people think.

A great bodhisattva is fearless. They have the wisdom to know the mind of the other and that tough love is necessary to help them; and they don’t mind if people criticize them.

But, one step at a time. In delving deep into our own minds and unpacking and unravelling its contents, we not only grow our own marvellous potential but develop the wisdom to know others as well, and to genuinely know how to help them.

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